international analysis and commentary

Spain has voted, what for?


On 28 April, Spain voted for a new parliament. And although there will most likely be continuity in terms of the party in government, many factors have made this election unique and decisive for the coming years.

Ahead of the third general elections in less than four years, there were major uncertainties. Would the eruption of the new nationalist party Vox lead to a further fragmentation of the Spanish parliament? Would the wave of nationalist marches during the campaign be reflected in parliamentary majorities? Would the new leader of the center-right Partido Popular (PP), Pablo Casado, free his party from its corrupt image and lead it back into government?

The outcome of the election and the new Spanish parliament. (Rosa M.ª Anechina / La Vanguardia)


Given the outcome of the election, the social-democrat PSOE and its leader Pedro Sánchez can certainly be considered as the clear winners with 28.7% of votes and coming in first in all regions except Catalonia and the Basque country. They gained 38 seats vis-à-vis the previous election and left their traditional competitor PP far behind for the first time in 11 years.

The electoral defeat of the PP (16.7%), which lost more than half of its seats compared to 2016, was surely the biggest setback. The part obtained its lowest result in history and was almost overtaken by the new center-right Ciudadanos.

Whereas the PSOE can celebrate its victory and the PP is suffering its worst defeat, the remaining political actors cannot easily be categorized into winners or losers.

Ciudadanos overtook Podemos as the third strongest party with 15.9% of the vote and came close to the PP. Yet it was not able to push for a change of government and came short of leading the opposition. Whereas it had been strong enough to form a right-of-center government at the regional level in Andalucia, with the PP and the nationalist Vox five months ago, it fell short of this goal at the national level.

Podemos (under the new name “Unidas Podemos”) lost 29 seats and is now only the fourth parliamentary force with 14.3%. Paradoxically, whereas in the previous elections it was unable to enter the government by holding 71 seats, Podemos may play a major role now with only 42 members of parliament as they might be necessary for a new government. Leader Pablo Iglesias has already told Pedro Sánchez that they are ready to form a coalition with the PSOE. Yet the latter has so far publicly stated that his party’s priority would be to form a minority government.

For almost forty years of democracy, bipartisanship guaranteed a certain degree of political stability in Spain. In 2015, this changed when the emerging parties Podemos on the left and Ciudadanos on the center of the political spectrum both entered the arena with double-digit results. Eventually, they were not strong enough to oust Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his conservative PP, which was able to stick to power after a new election in 2016.

However, two years later, with the issue of Catalan independence becoming a matter of national relevance, a combination of a national sense of unity mixed with nationalist pride among many voters, Vox appealed increasingly to conservative voters who were disappointed by the mismanagement of the PP.

In December 2018, Vox made it into the regional parliament of Andalucia, a traditional stronghold of the center-left PSOE and eventually it was decisive in the formation of a coalition government of the right. Aiming to be more conservative than the PP, the nationalists’ priorities include support for the bull-fighting culture, opposition to gay marriage as well as to feminist demands. Its danger lies in the glorification of the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975).

During the electoral campaign, Vox surfed on a wave of Spanish nationalism that was also embraced by the PP and Ciudadanos, stressing a heavy hand against Catalan separatism. By being further to the right than its competitors who are already in Parliament and by using a more extreme rhetoric, the nationalist party managed to appeal to a significant number of voters and entered the Spanish Parliament with 24 seats, becoming the fifth strongest parliamentary group.

Their rhetoric of the “reconquest of Spain” during the electoral campaign and after the results were published alludes to the Spanish Reconquista from Moorish rule in the late 15th century. Furthermore, it echoes populist rhetoric from across Europe in recent years, be it Nigel Farage (UKIP) wanting his “country back” or Alexander Gauland from the far-right AfD claiming that they would “bring back our country and our nation” in Germany.

Until now, Spain was one of the last democracies in Europe that had been spared from having a major far-right group in parliament. Ultra-conservative and nationalist sentiments had always been absorbed by the center-right Partido Popular, but this has now changed. People are no longer shy about voicing nationalist views as many see themselves reflected in Vox.

This emotional vote has triggered a strong reaction on the other side of the political spectrum, significantly boosting the vote on the center and center-left. It also shows the ineffectiveness of the PP in trying to emulate extreme rhetoric and supports the assumption that elections are generally not won on the extremes, but on center ground.

What strikes in this election is that despite major obvious problems like unemployment, education or climate change, voters focused less on concrete policy areas and were rather concerned with the personal shortcomings of the parties and their candidates.

The fact that the campaign has been emotional on either side was mirrored by the high turnout, the highest since 1996 with 75.8%. Whereas the right was able to mobilize a significantly number of voters, the countermovement by the center-left has been considerably higher.

Pedro Sánchez’s power options now remain as clear as they are uncertain. To form a majority he would either need to form a coalition with Ciudadanos, which had ruled out entering into any government lead by Sánchez. The other option would be to form a coalition with left-wing Unidas Podemos and rely on the support of minor regional parties. However, if they had to count on the backing of Catalan separatist MPs, this would be very dangerous politically for the PSOE and trigger further nationalist sentiments among the electorate. This is why their best bet is to form a minority government (with or without Podemos) hoping for enough abstentions enabling them to govern. Yet, with the European elections less than a month away, it is unlikely that major political commitments will be made before the 26 May.

In the European Union on the center-left of the political spectrum, there might be a sense of relief that Social Democrats are still able to win elections in large democracies. Whereas in Germany, Italy and France the allied parties of the Spanish PSOE are all in decline and have suffered major setbacks in recent years, they have reasons to be hopeful for the next elections. They should not rely on that and remember that Spain is different, also in terms of politics.